gold-colored statue during daytime

Explore Salem in Weekend Getaway: What to Do in 2 Days

Salem is Oregon’s capital city, and while it’s nowhere near as well-known or popular as Portland is, it’s still well worth visiting. Salem offers a close-knit community and a relaxed pace of life, allowing travelers to enjoy good food and slow travel. Two days is just the right amount of time to experience Salem’s culture.

Like much of western Oregon, Salem frequently experiences rain for nine months of the year. This suggested itinerary includes a few outdoor activities as well as alternative locations for those days when the rain is more downpour than drizzle. 

When is the best time to visit Salem?

Spring is when Salem truly dazzles. The Willamette Valley surrounding Salem is a huge agricultural region, and there are gorgeous flowers in bloom from late February through early October. Salem is known as the Cherry City, and you’ll understand why if you walk the grounds of the Oregon State Capitol in March and April.

Day 1 in Salem

For those who need to eat before doing anything else, French Press Coffee and Crepes is just the ticket. However, if you’re more of a brunch person, skip down to the Willamette Heritage Center and follow up with the amazing brunch menu at Taproot.

Breakfast at French Press

Start your morning off with a signature latte and crepes at French Press Coffee and Crepes. Enjoy Oregon local flavors with the Willamette latte (dark chocolate and hazelnut) and a marionberry crepe (marionberries are native to Oregon and similar to blackberries).

If a sweet breakfast isn’t your cup of tea, order spicy chai tea and a savory chorizo crepe instead. French Press offers several other breakfast options besides crepes, including frittata, bagel sandwiches, and more.

Willamette Heritage Center

Salem Willamette Heritage Center
Photo Credit: Jenn Warren

Once breakfast is over, start your exploration at the Willamette Heritage Center. The Willamette Heritage Center (WHC) is a collection of historic houses and buildings that are connected to the early growth and industrial history of Salem. The largest of the buildings were once parts of the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill.

You’ll start in the Warehouse which has introductory displays and a short film. From there, you can go inside each of the historic buildings on the grounds and explore at your own pace. There are QR codes at various points that allow you to watch a short video to explore more of the self-guided tour.

The Lee House and the Parsonage are two of the oldest frame houses still standing in the Pacific Northwest. Each of the buildings includes period furnishings and information about how different community members lived at various points in Salem’s history. 

You can learn about the indigenous people that first populated the Salem region, and about Jason Lee founding the first mission that brought pioneers over. There are also exhibits about the roles of women, children, and slaves during Salem’s early days.

Once you’ve toured the other buildings, you can cross the Mill Creek and start the mill tour. The tour walks visitors through the process of converting raw sheep fleece into wool thread, and from wool thread to fabric.

Salem Willamette Heritage Center
Photo Credit: Jenn Warren

At each point in the process, you can see the equipment that was used for that step. One of the former mill owners (Tom Kay) was a Mill tour guide in previous years, and his reflections are part of the tour. At each step of the process, you can scan a QR code to watch Tom explaining what the rooms and machines did.

The main Mill building has four levels, and the two lower levels contain huge machines for spinning the wool into thread and then turning it into fabric. On the fourth floor, there are often volunteers working hand-operated looms to weave towels and other products for sale at the gift shop. It’s fascinating to talk with these weavers and see the designs come to life!

Once you’ve completed the walking tour, you’ll want to spend some time in the gift shops at the Warehouse. For crafters who love knitting or crocheting, there’s a huge collection of yarns, while another shop sells hats of all shapes, styles, and colors. The Pendleton Woolen Mill shop also has a shop offering all kinds of modern wool products with gorgeous designs.

Lunch (or brunch) at Taproot

Photo Credit: Jenn Warren

People often think of Portland as the foodie haven, but Salem’s food scene is impressive in its own right, and Taproot is no exception. Taproot caters to gluten-free and vegan diners, and its creative food pairings appeal to anyone.

Taproot has a trendy vibe and community feel. Their unique decor and commitment to being environmentally friendly have made them a popular choice among Salemites. One of the ways Taproot gives back is by offering guests the option to pay for a “community bowl” that will be used to feed those in need.

You won’t want to miss an appetizer of Davocados! Deep-fried beer-battered avocado strips with a snappy chipotle ranch dipping sauce make this a fan favorite. 

This is also a great place to enjoy your favorite sandwich shop items, as well as sandwiches with local Oregon ingredients. The Willamette is a fancy take on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that includes bacon, bleu cheese, and locally grown marionberry jam. 

Taproot is one of the best places in downtown Salem to try local craft beers. Oregon has hundreds of craft breweries all over the state, and Taproot serves a wide variety of local Willamette Valley beers that rotate seasonally.

Taproot has two locations, one right inside the Willamette Heritage Center and the other a few blocks from Riverfront Park. 

Riverfront City Park and the Minto-Brown Island Park

Minto-Island Pedestrian Bridge
Photo Credit: Jenn Warren

Riverfront Park is more than just a beautiful city park on the banks of the Willamette River. It’s a cultural hub for Salem’s outdoor events and offers wide open spaces to walk, play, and picnic. Summer concerts, Christmas light displays, and other special events are hosted on the lawns and at the amphitheater.

Stroll along the river’s edge past the Willamette Queen, a sternwheeler that offers dinner cruises and more. Or visit the Carousel to ride on hand-carved whimsical animals, including a dragon and a University of Oregon duck. You can also tour the Carousel workshop, where volunteers are working to create new animals.

Walk around the artistic Eco-Earth mosaic globe with unique views on every side. Then take a short walk to cross the Willamette Slough by way of the Minto-Island Pedestrian Bridge. Bald eagles and waterfowl can often be seen fishing in the river.

If you’re in the mood for a longer walk, continue the trail from the end of the bridge through the conservation area until you arrive at Minto-Brown Island Park. The Minto-Brown Island park has over 29 miles of trails to explore, through various types of natural areas. 

Mental Health Museum at Oregon State Hospital (rainy day alternative)

The Mental Health Museum is a unique and thought-provoking place that is equal parts interesting and unusual. It’s also almost entirely indoors, making it the perfect place to visit if it’s pouring rain outside.

This museum sheds light on the history of mental illness and mental health treatment. The first exhibit is a timeline of the hospital that lines up important moments in mental health advances with local and world history. 

Other exhibits show some of the equipment and methods of treatment that historically were used to treat mental illness (including straitjackets and shock therapy). Throughout the Museum, stories of individual patients are shared through audio recordings, letters, and displays.

It’s shocking to see how many diseases and life experiences were once classified as “mental illness”. You’ll find it equally shocking that many women (and men) were institutionalized simply because they were an inconvenience to their spouse or family!

Movie buffs may recognize the Oregon State Hospital as the location for the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s a dedicated exhibit that includes movie props and even plays a famous scene from the movie on a TV just like the one in the movie. 

You won’t want to miss the story of the “Library of Dust”, and then follow up with a short visit to the memorial (a few steps away from the Museum). The Museum of Mental Health provides one of those one-of-a-kind experiences that make Salem so enchanting.

Dinner at the Cozy Taberna

Cozy Taberna
Photo Credit: Jenn Warren

The Cozy Taberna serves Spanish-style food with shared plates. You’ll need to make a reservation ahead of time, since this is one of the more popular restaurants in Salem.

Every dish at the Cozy Taberna is crafted exquisitely and plated beautifully. Make sure to order their house-made brioche loaf, perfectly warm, buttery, and light. You’ll also want to save room for dessert, although choosing between the chocolate torte and Basque burnt cheesecake may prove impossible – order both!

The extensive drink menu and wine list are another reason that The Cozy Taberna is considered one of Salem’s best restaurants. Dozens of wines, from Oregon Pinot Noir to Spanish cava, are available by the bottle, as well as creative cocktails and traditional sangria. 

The Cozy Taberna is tucked inside Electric Alley, one of the many historic buildings in Salem’s downtown area. It’s within easy walking distance of Riverfront Park or the Grand Hotel.

Catch a show at Salem’s Elsinore Theatre

Elsinore Theatre
Photo Credit: Jenn Warren

The Elsinore Theatre is a historic theatre (dating from 1926) that hosts live music, concerts, performing artists, comedians and more. Check the website for upcoming events.

The building itself is a work of art, with a Gothic-style interior, stained glass windows, intricate details, and a gorgeous mural painted on the back exterior of the building. The mural depicts icons from Hollywood’s Golden Era. 

Day 2 in Salem

Breakfast at Sybil’s

Sybil’s is a casual homestyle restaurant that’s famous for its omelets and other egg dishes such as eggs Benedict. The omelet menu includes over 100 variations of ingredients to add to your omelet! However, if you’re not a fan of eggs, Sybil’s also makes great French toast and pancakes.

Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University

Hallie Ford Museum of Art
Photo Credit: Jenn Warren

The Hallie Ford Museum appears small from the outside, but its collection is extensive and varied. It’s an ideal spot to enjoy art from different perspectives and cultures without being overwhelmed with too many choices.

Spend your morning surrounded by unique artwork from ancient Egypt and early America as well as modern artists from the Salem area. There’s a little bit of everything in the galleries at the Hallie Ford Museum. 

You can study ancient Roman coins up close, or famous Chinese tapestry and statuary. You can also look at sculptures by neurodivergent artists along with a diverse collection of indigenous masks, baskets, and more. Thoughtful interactive features (such as pull-out plexiglass drawers) give easy access to the art while protecting the pieces for future generations.

Lunch at Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh Brewing is a fun-themed brewpub that offers beer flights and good food. Named after a Mesopotamian epic poem, Gilgamesh serves creative brews with names like Bollywood, HopScotch, and Mamba and unique flavor profiles. 

Gilgamesh offers standard brewpub fare, such as burgers, fries, nachos, pizza and more. Try the Stoney fries with the beer flight for a great midday meal.

Afternoon stroll at Bush’s Pasture Park or Bush Barn Art Center

Bush’s Pasture Park is a city park that includes baseball diamonds, playgrounds, wooded areas with a creek, and several historic homes and buildings. It’s a beautiful place to walk around and enjoy nature, but watch out for the territorial owl!

If the weather is too wet to stay outside, the Bush Barn Art Center and Bush House and Conservatory are good options. The Art Center hosts changing local artists’ exhibits as part of the Salem Art Association. The gift shop has an excellent selection of art products as well as offering art for sale.

The Bush House offers guided tours Thursday through Saturday afternoons, and tickets are free. This historic home was owned by Asahel Bush, founding editor of Salem’s Oregon Statesman newspaper (1850s). The conservatory was built for Asahel’s wife Eugenia and holds a gorgeous collection of non-native plants in a greenhouse setting.

Dinner at McMenamin’s

Photo Credit: Jenn Warren

McMenamin’s is a family-owned Pacific Northwest restaurant group that is known for taking historic buildings and converting them into unique brewpubs. Each location is colorful and full of history and art, so you’ll have a memorable experience at any one of them. 

McMenamin’s brews their own beer and cider, and they are known for their creative drink offerings. Special events and fun activities (such as old movie theaters, soaking pools, rooftop dining and more) are hosted at individual locations, so you’ll want to check the website before you arrive for upcoming events.

Evening walk at the Oregon State Capitol building and grounds

The Oregon State Capitol has beautiful grounds and the Golden Pioneer statue atop the Capitol dome is lit up at night. It’s a great location to enjoy a quiet walk. Yozakura (Oregon’s nighttime viewing of the cherry blossoms with lanterns) is held on the grounds in March and April.

Optional day trip

Do you have an extra day in Salem or a long weekend? You can take some day trips along the Oregon coast to see Pacific City or Newport. Or you can choose to go see the city of Silverton, which is just a 25-minute drive east of Salem, and makes another perfect day trip! 

Check out Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House, the only house in Oregon designed by the famous architect. Right next door is the Oregon Garden, a lush botanical garden sectioned into different habitats, including a water garden and a pet garden.

Or drive another 30 minutes out to Silver Falls State Park, famous for its Trail of Ten Falls, which includes several waterfalls you can walk behind. Return to Silverton after your hike to enjoy its small-town Oregon charm, with its antique shops, boutiques, murals, and excellent restaurants.

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